The Canegreen Story
To celebrate the 21st birthday of Canegreen in 2003, Co-founder Yan Stile spoke to Mark Cunningham of Total Production International.
Report reproduced from TPi
Twenty-one years ago, a former Seventies boy band star Co-founded a London-based PA company which is now riding high in today's rental company charts. Yan Stile re-traces the firm's steps, in conversation with Mark Cunningham.
The recent death of legendary record producer Mickie Most encouraged nostalgic interest in his RAK Records label, which was phenomenally successful in the 1970s and early '80s as the home of Suzi Quatro, Hot Chocolate, CCS, Mud, Smokie and Kim Wilde. Those of a singles-buying age in the mid-'70s will also recall another RAK success - Kenny, a one-time Enfield prog-rock band who radically metamorphosised into what we would now term a 'boy band', making it big with hits including 'The Bump' and 'Fancy Pants'.
In the line-up was bassist Chris Redburn, who after his brief spell as a pop idol founded the TP Award-winning trucking firm Redburn Transfer. Alongside him on guitar was another individual who has also played a major part in shaping today's live production industry - Yan Stile, the co-founder of north London sound rental company Canegreen, which is currently celebrating its 21st anniversary.
Towards the end of Kenny's run of fame, Stile (pictured above right) was seriously injured in a car crash, sustaining a paralysed right arm. Proving that every cloud has a silver lining, he wasted little time in 'reinventing' himself by co-founding Canegreen with famed production manager Pete Edmonds in 1982.
Stile takes up the story: "High Life Productions, a company run by Smokie's manager, had gone bust and Pete, who had been renting space at Britannia Row, was looking after their sound and lighting equipment on behalf of the Receiver. Pete told me there was a chance to buy the gear and asked if I wanted to get involved. So I took the plunge and that was the birth of Canegreen." Edmonds (above centre) had only recently moved his operation down from the second floor at Brit Row to an annexe at the back of the yard, which was now also accommodating both Redburn Transfer's office and Canegreen's initial base.
Although Stile was a lighting enthusiast at the time, it soon became clear that the future of Canegreen was in sound and in its first few years the client roster included acts as diverse as Kissing The Pink, Ultravox, Aztec Camera, Frank Zappa and Van Morrison. "The PA equipment we bought was essentially a range of custom-built cabinets designed by Simon Johnston, now of d&b audiotechnik, and Richard Barry, the head engineer at AIR Studios. The system was jointly owned by us and Barclay James Harvest, which meant that when they toured, they would rent our half of it! "We eventually sold our system to BJH which gave us the opportunity to invest in Meyer in 1985, which was our first investment in a high profile brand. We bought four MSL-3s which cost about £20,000 - a ridiculous amount of money back then. At the same time we bought a 22-channel Midas Pro 40 console, which cost £36,000, so we were rather hoping that business would take off in a big way."
Canegreen is now the UK's premier concert touring rental house for Meyer Sound, but why did the firm choose Meyer in the first place? Stile says: "The brand had picked up a lot of support from artists and engineers, particulary those coming over from the States. People were making these claims that they could play the Albert Hall with two MSL-3s! George Benson was one of Pete's clients and he wanted to try the Meyer system, so that was part of our motivation. We also found ourselves doing cross-renting with Sound Hire, which was quite fruitful. "With regard to profile and attracting clients, the investment did have a significant impact on our business, and we very soon increased the inventory, and haven't looked back really."
In 1989, Canegreen added EAW product to its inventory which Stile explains is "all about giving our customers what they want". Both of the manufacturers' latest line array products are stocked by Canegreen, including EAW's KF760 system and Meyer's M3D and M2D. In addition, the company field-trialed Meyer's MILO system at June's Isle Of Wight Festival (see this issue's report), and a purchase has just been announced.
As the 1990s developed and the new century began, Canegreen picked up further lucrative accounts with Paul Weller, Pretenders, The Corrs, Fugees, Net Aid at Wembley Stadium, Party In The Park (Hyde Park), the Thomas The Tank Engine show, and the 'virtual' Elvis: The Concert production, to name but a few. I asked Stile how his approach to business may have changed over the years. "When we started our main competitors were Britannia Row, Tasco and Entec... that shows you how times have changed! Back then, we were all less professional and it was all about what systems you owned and how many tours you were doing. I was a lot younger then, full of enthusiasm and didn't know any different. These days it's more sophisticated.
Stile, a keen athlete who recently achieved a personal best of 35 mins 34 secs in a local five mile road race, adds: "We run like proper businesses with standards to adhere to, and we have to continually invest in new product to keep our customers happy. Safety and quality are paramount, and there's a lot of attention to both detail and style. The industry is barely recognisable now compared to the early '80s."
Fundamental to the firm's current growth pattern was the arrival in 1989 of former Tasco engineer Andrew Frengley (pictured opposite, far left), initially as a freelance monitor mixer. Frengers' interest in touring began to wane, and he soon found himself managing the operations of in-ear monitoring pioneer Garwood from the current Canegreen building in Northumberland Park, Tottenham. Within months though, he was back at Canegreen, armed with a plan which would steer a solid course for progression into the new Millennium. Says Frengley: "After Garwood collapsed I almost took a job within the Harman Corporation in the USA, but it fell apart probably because my head was too big for the stetson they were offering me! Meanwhile, Yan and I were exploring different avenues, and I came up with a 100-page document detailing where the company should be going. Part of this was to set up Canegreen Commercial to serve the growing corporate market, and I've been full-time as a director ever since."
With a portfolio of events including the NME 'Brats', the Vodafone Ball, and Music Week, TV Quick and Mojo Awards, Canegreen Commercial has had a significant impact on the growth of the parent group, which now also embraces A/V installation service Green-I and theatrical company Richard Brooker Sound Design (RBSD). Frengley comments: "The rental market has changed. Quite simply, if you can cover a wider variety of events, you will rent more equipment out. We've successfully, but by no means thoroughly, been able to convince the market that we can do any type of event, and what we have is a group of specialist companies that can each address these needs and do an excellent job. They require different cultures, techniques and approaches but in effect at the core they require a similar set of skills and core values."
I recalled a very animated conversation between Frengers and I, around the time of Canegreen Commercial's launch, when he explained in great detail how crucial distributed sound techniques would be to the future of the corporate market. "I make no apologies for being a sound fanatic," laughs Frengley. "I was building speaker boxes at age eight... that's what I like! So I naturally enjoy having the opportunity to see how I can advance sound design techniques, and distributing sound around an audience, particularly in corporate event situations, has been something which we've been very good at."
The theatrical and installation divisions of the group were established 18 months ago and are both run from the Tottenham HQ. "Richard Brooker is West End through and through, and we consider him to be a phenomenal talent among engineers. Green-I's Ian Woodall is equally as skilled in installation and we expect great things from both companies." says Frengley.
Compared to a decade ago, the behaviour of some of the more successful theatre sound rental houses has become quite competitive and aggressive. Should we expect the same 'eye-scratching' from RBSD? "Well, that would be appropriate in the luvvie sense, wouldn't it? I don't think we're looking to snatch market share from our rivals," insists Frengley. "We're going to concentrate on Richard's design work primarily, and also capitalise on the additional work that he does. In theatre rental, the investment side is high and the returns are comparitively low, so we're not about to be aggressive in rental. They can all sleep easy!"
STAYING ON TOP
Canegreen has not been immune to the current pressure on PA companies to invest heavily in digital consoles and line array systems. So far, the firm has stuck its big toe in with the purchase of two Yamaha PM1Ds, although Bob Doyle's legendary persuasive efforts have yet to result in a cheque for DiGiCo.
Frengley is happy to admit to a little fence-sitting. "The PM1Ds are working out well for us and we'll keep an eye on how the DiGiCo D5 performs. The thing is, I see a market full of digital console owners who want to rent them out, and it's not quite that easy because nobody has yet cracked the safety factor. There is a fear that digital desks will break down and the show will fail, and that fear has to be overcome. It's like the old vinyl vs. CD argument from the '80s. "Someone has to invent a more tactile control surface before the majority of engineers go for digital in a big way, signifying the end of analogue. I don't think it'll happen as fast as everyone thinks. It's like any audio tool - if you're prepared to invest the time into learning the product inside out, and get to know the nuances of every feature, it'll provide great benefits. Otherwise they're considered a hindrance."
Twenty-one years down the line, Canegreen is celebrating its birthday with a re-branding exercise, complete with new divisional and group logos, and a snappy, Flash-animated website at www.canegreen.com Ñ definitely worth a look! Stile comments: "At 21 the company has a lot of experience, but is very fresh in it's daily approach to life. Nothing stands still in the world and Canegreen is no exception as we keep up with new technology, applying fresh approaches and solutions for clients."
Stile reflects on what it is about the company that distinguishes it from its competitors: "Every one of the top rental companies in the UK has a different culture to the next, and it comes from the people. Brit Row has become what it is because of Bryan Grant and Mike Lowe; SSE is John Penn and Chris Beale; Capital Sound is Keith Davis and Martin Connolly. For us, it's the chemistry of myself, Andrew and Pete, working with a very talented and dedicated bunch of colleagues."
Frengers adds: "We are who we are because of the people we employ, and it's like a big extended family all sharing some common belief. They've all got some charm about them and they can go to work on a show and people will like them. They're highly competent and have a work ethic that you wouldn't believe. If a show goes wrong for some reason, they'll take it very personally because they care enormously about the results they get. That's why we continue to keep our key clients, from fashion companies to rock'n'roll greats. "It also helps that we're driven by an extremely energetic person, and believe me, Yan isn't about to stand still!"